Author: Poling, Chuck

I Feel Like Singing Today…

Bluegrass music is unique in that a large percentage of its fans are musicians themselves. This is partly explained by the relative ease with which one can get started picking on a folk-based, stringed instrument. With the exception of the fiddle, which requires some serious dedication, bluegrass instruments are fairly easy to play, at least for a beginner.

Jamming is an integral part of any bluegrass event, precisely because the music is participatory by nature. Not everyone has the time, talent, or inclination to take up an instrument. But everyone has a voice, and singing is humankind’s oldest form of musical expression.

The intricate harmonies that we now associate with bluegrass gospel songs – exemplified by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver – are influenced by the popular quartets of the ‘40s and ‘50s like the Blackwood Brothers and the Golden Gate Quartet. Deeper roots can be found in the Sacred Harp or “shape note” singing schools that began in New England in the early 19th century and spread west and south. Today in pockets of Alabama, Mississippi, and other southern states the tradition continues.

I won’t dwell too much on Sacred Harp singing except to stress that it’s very simple (a capella) and structured, and meant to be sung by all in their loudest, fullest voices. Many fundamentalist congregations that do not allow musical instruments, even the venerable church organ, in their worship services found a way to include music in their devotions through unaccompanied singing.

Of course, you can find examples of traditional a capella music all over the world. When people feel a need to sing, the absence of instrumental accompaniment does not discourage them. Chain-gang work songs, sea chanteys, and Gregorian chants are a few examples, but you can look all over the world, all through history, and find many more.

Here is San Francisco there are monthly Sacred Harp get-togethers, and sea chantey singalongs aboard the historic vessels at Hyde Street Pier. The San Francisco Folk Music Club gathers twice a month at a house where one room is devoted to a capella singing. The theme for the evening (work songs, love songs, pirate songs, whatever) is announced in advance, so the singers come prepared.

Singing is a natural thing for most people. We sing in the shower, we sing while we’re cooking dinner or mowing the lawn. Sometimes we’re not even aware that we’re singing until the co-worker in the next cubicle asks us to keep it down.

The voice is quite an instrument. It’s portable, doesn’t require a capo, and never needs its strings changed. Some people are born with beautiful voices and a tremendous vocal range. All of us have the ability, but most of us have to work at getting the most out of our voices. Every so often, you’ll meet someone who’s terribly shy about their singing, and when you hear them, you’ll be amazed that they’re not fronting a band. On the other hand, we all know people who can’t carry a tune in a bucket but enthusiastically bellow out their favorite songs at top volume.

What really matters is that we all recognize and appreciate that singing is a basic human behavior, not far down the hierarchy of needs from food, shelter, and a reliable internet connection.

So for those of you out there who do not play an instrument, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make music. The human voice is where it all began, and when you’re singing you’re expressing yourself the same way your ancestors did for tens of thousands of years. It’s a basic human behavior. All you gotta do is act naturally.

Posted:  9/24/2012

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